Everybody has that one movie clip—the one you’re simply never able to scroll past. (Consider it the 2023 incarnation of the flick you can never pass up when you see it airing for the billionth time on TNT.) Watch this one clip a hundred times and, even so, when it pops in your head, or gets served up by the all-powerful algorithm, you’re ready to be swept along for the one-hundred-and-first.
“My” clip comes toward the climax of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. You know the one, if you’ve seen it: Teen hero Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is clinging to the side of a building, locked in a war with his own self-doubts. The voices of parents and mentors—most prominently the Spider-Man of another world, Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker—echo in his head. The soundtrack builds. Miles tenses. The glass of the building’s windows shatters, as his arachnid-powered hands push off it. The first bar of Blackway and Black Caviar’s “What’s Up Danger” hits the audio.
And Miles Morales ascends.
It’s a shot that could only work in animation—the “camera” inverted, locked on Miles’ gracefully still body as it falls upward toward the city streets below. A second before, he was spinning, flailing; a second after, he’ll be racing to get his new web-shooters to work, the pounding soundtrack accelerating the pace of his fall. But for one second of perfect, sacred stillness, there’s nothing but the leap of faith, the heart and soul of the best Spider-Man movie ever made.
That’s a contention with some stiff competition—most notably Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, which has its own version of the “must-watch” scene: Tobey Maguire’s Peter practically crucifying himself to stop a speeding train. (No, you tear up every time those kids bring Pete back his discarded mask and promise “We won’t tell.”) But while Spidey 2 might beat out Spider-Verse for pure depth of feeling, and for its deep dive into the eternal sad-sack-ery of one Peter Parker, it just can’t match the newer film for sheer superheroic joy—or on finding a message that pushes beyond that hoary old “With great power ...” line.
Before diving into those philosophical differences, though, let’s acknowledge the obvious: The Oscar winning Spider-Verse might also be the most beautiful piece of studio animation to be produced in at least a decade, filled with vibrant colors, expressive faces, and a knack for putting cartoon bodies in motion that sometimes borders on the experimental. Incorporating comic book panels—and literal covers, in one of the film’s best running bits—into its art-style, the movie embraces its status as animation and uses it to the hilt, sending all its Spider-people soaring through New York skylines, gorgeously realized fall foliage, and kaleidoscopic inter-dimensional … thingies … without ever losing track of how they move and fight. From a visual point of view, there’s nothing in mainstream superhero cinema that can really match it—until its sequel, Across The Spider-Verse, hits theaters this week, at least.
Meanwhile, the fingerprints of producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who also worked on the film’s story, with co-director Rodney Rothman) are obvious from the movie’s humor, which is effortless in the way that jokes in so many modern superhero movies aren’t. There are the big, obvious gags—Miles getting adhesive hands as his superpowers “puberty” their way into existence, or the Wile E. Coyote way he falls off a building, or basically anything that comes out of Spider-Ham’s (John Mulaney) mouth. But Spider-Verse is also a showcase for more naturally funny performances, especially from Johnson, who’s maybe never been better cast than as an over-the-hill version of Peter whose luck has reached its natural terminus. Self-effacing and hilarious, Johnson is functionally perfect as a fry-scarfing, overweight Web-head who is nevertheless also the guy who’s spent the last 22 years taking crippling hits to keep his city safe, and getting up the next night to do it all over again.
All of which trickles down to Miles, who spends the film grappling with what being Spider-Man really means. At first, it looks like the movie is leaning in to the idea, familiar to decades’ worth of comic readers, that Spider-Man is essentially a high-flying grief reaction, blazing through multiple origin stories that always seem to center on a dead loved one. (Miles’ own grief reaction eventually being tossed on the pile, after his beloved but villainous uncle dies in a moment of last-second redemption.) But, time and time again, Spider-Verse also defies the idea that “With great power” is some kind of curse, dooming these characters to lives of unwanted heroism because the alternative is a slow death by guilt. It all comes back to that leap of faith: Miles, his own version of his logo tagged on his suit, running in traffic, sprinting sideways across the windows of crowded office buildings, grinning to himself as he realizes he’s doing it. It’s a perfect joyful moment, rap beats blending on the soundtrack with more traditional superhero horns as Miles realizes his potential. He chooses in that moment to be Spider-Man—with the film acknowledging it by dropping the cover of his own comic book on top of the stack that’s been building up all movie long, as more and more Spider-folks have come barging into his reality.
It could all come off as inspirational pablum, unearned comic book cheese. But Spider-Verse is a movie that loves Spider-Man as a character, and as a concept, and that means embracing both the sillier and the more sincere sides of its web-swinging hero. That means we get a moving eulogy from Mary Jane Parker, after the Peter of Miles’ universe (Chris Pine) dies protecting both him and the city from Kingpin Wilson Fisk. And it means we get sequences like Peter B. and Miles’ slapdash infiltration of a lab operated by a suspiciously be-tentacled scientist, the two desperately improvising their way way through the rapidly escalating chaos. But most of all, it means we get a movie that moves like the Spiders themselves do: Swiftly, unpredictably, and with a confidence and grace that lets you know that, misery be damned, being Spider-Man can be fun as hell. Spider-Verse has some tough competition for the title of best Spider-Man movie, admittedly—but when did you ever know Spider-Man to back down from a fight?